Black Native American descendants fight for recognition

Many Black Creeks who tried to re-enroll into the tribe have been denied

Rhonda Grayson, a Black Creek Native American of Oklahoma, is one of many tribal descendants who are actively fighting to regain their citizenship in the Creek tribe.

In Okmulgee, Oklahoma, there are more than 86,000 citizens enrolled in the Creek Nation–one of the largest recognized tribes in the United States.

America Cohee-Webster, circa 1965, left, and Willie Cohee, circa 1896 (via NBC News/ Courtesy Rhonda Grayson)

Grayson, 51, told NBC News that she was aware of both her Black and Native heritage growing up in Wewoka. Her great grandmother of Black Creek descent was names America Cohee.

According to NBC News, Cohee was originally enrolled in the tribe and for generations, fellow Black Creeks like her were recognized until one day, it came to an end.

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Alaina E. Roberts, assistant history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, noted that the tribe capitalized on chattel slavery in the late 1700s.

“The tribe really began to pick up on Black enslavement,” Roberts said.

Colonization would abruptly force Creek people from their lands in both Alabama and Georgia to where they now reside in Oklahoma. African Americans free of slavery or individuals of both African and Native American decent were among those who relocated while others remained enslaved.

In 1898, the lands belonging to the Creek nation were divided by the U.S. government who assigned allotments to each member of the tribe. The “Dawes Rolls” were created by the government to place the Creek people in categories by either their blood or as “freedmen,” people who were either enslaved or are an descendant from formerly enslaved.

According to Roberts, placement on the rolls were based on appearance no matter their ancestry with light-skinned people on the “blood” roll and darker-skinned people on the “freedmen” roll.

“These were white men from the outside who don’t understand how tribal membership works. So a lot of it was what they think an Indian or Black person looks like and acts like,” Roberts said. “There are plenty of examples in all the tribes in which people in the same family are put on two different rolls.”

In 1979, citizens who were once recognized as members of Creek Nation where members of “freedmen” were unenrolled after members of the tribe voted for a new constitution.

In the Creek Supreme Court, it states that citizenship shall be certified if “the person is a Muscogee (Creek) Indian by blood whose name appears on the final rolls as provided by the Act of April 26, 1906, or the person is a lineal descendant of a Muscogee (Creek) Indian by blood whose name appears on the final rolls as provided by the act of April 26, 1906.”

Many Black Creeks who have tried to re-enroll since the 1970s have been denied. With the disenrollment from their tribe, they’ve experienced great losses including the right to vote, run in tribal elections, adequate access to federal funded programs for housing, health care, financial aid for college and COVID-19 financial assistance.

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“If we say that we’re Black Creeks, we will get flak from not only people who don’t look like us, but from people who look like us,” Grayson said. “And they will tell us that we are trying to be Indians and we’re not Indians. We are just Black people, or, you know, other terms that they would use.”

Twitter user J.D. Baker shared the story saying, “This is Indigenous history. This is Black history. This is Oklahoma history. This is American history. This is MY history and the history of many other freedmen descendants.”

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